In honor of National Bike Month, we’re spotlighting how bicycles are tools for personal empowerment, social justice and community development in our with our “Where the Ride Takes Us” web series. Today’s post comes from Briana Orr, a participant in Bike & Build, which organizes cross-country bicycle trips to benefit affordable housing groups.

briana“Where are you headed?”

This was a daily question we received, from inside a car or from behind a counter. Being on a bike in the middle of North Dakota does wonders to spark conversation.

My response — “Vancouver, BC!” — always created looks of disbelief or confusion.


I learned two things about long-distance bike travel that summer:

1) Traveling by bike — especially in a large group in identical attire — is a conversation starter. As my friend and riding partner Stella Day said, “It’s novel – it takes passion and dedication to ride a bike all the way across the country – and people want to know why you are riding so far.”

2) Learning the “contours of the country” is best done by bike, as Ernest Hemingway famously proclaimed. I also learned that getting to know the people and communities of our country is also best done by bike.

Why were we pedaling across the country?

Stella and I were a part of the non-profit Bike & Build, joining 31 other young adults raising money and raising roofs for affordable housing. We collectively raised $166,000 for affordable housing organizations and volunteered 1,980 hours over the course of 10 weeks. Our group, the Northern U.S. route, was just one of 10 groups pedaling for affordable housing that summer.

Over the past 10 seasons Bike & Build has donated more than $4 million; built for more than 120,000 hours; pedaled more than 6 million miles; and engaged more than 1,750 young adults in spreading the word about the affordable housing crisis in America.


Flood damaged house in Minot, North Dakota

Opening the conversation on the subject of our cross-country ride allowed us to raise awareness of affordable housing issues along the way and talk about what we saw and experienced first-hand in other communities.

In the past, I’d always traveled to experience the outdoors, not necessarily to experience the people. I sought out country roads and trails in the Northwest. I’ll admit North Dakota was never on my “must-see list.” In fact, I was not enthusiastic about riding Highway 2 all the way across the state.

But we had to. It was sitting there in between Minnesota’s 10,000 Lakes and Montana’s Big Sky country. Plus, we were scheduled to volunteer in Minot, a town that had been severely hit by floods in June 2011. Newspaper articles called it the worst flood in decades, damaging more than 4,000 homes and businesses.

And as much as I longed for the river paths in Oregon while on Highway 2, in the end I’m glad we rode through North Dakota. One image in particular will be etched in my mind for a long time:

The house was nearly bare to the studs — no doors or windows. The roof was the only thing that had been newly repaired. Our task for this “build” day was to tear down the remaining walls, which were damaged by the floods.


After working for five hours, we paused to meet kids from an after-school church group. They had come in hand with cold water and popsicles for us as a thank-you. The kids were probably no more than 7 years old. While I was saddened by the devastation and the dismal state of neighborhood, the people we met were enlivened by our presence and were so incredibly grateful. The adults we met spoke highly of the progress their community was making to rebuild.

This is perhaps the most amazing potential of a bicycle – to break down walls between our reality and other’s realities.

It forces us to see one another and to remember places for how they actually are.

Want to learn more about Bike & Build or support the cause? Visit


My Signature

Carolyn Szczepanski
Communications Director

Carolyn joined the League in March 2012, after two years at the Alliance for Biking & Walking. In addition to managing the League’s blog, magazine and other communications, Carolyn organized the first National Women’s Bicycling Summit and launched the League’s newest program: Women Bike. Before she crossed over to advocacy, she was a professional journalist for nearly 10 years.

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